Next Thursday the NFL will offer up its traditional Thanksgiving games. The Detroit Lions have played every Thanksgiving since 1934 (except for the 1939-44 commercial break otherwise known as "World War II"), and the Dallas Cowboys made it a doubleheader starting in 1966. Does anybody reading this remember a Thanksgiving without exactly two NFL games?
So imagine my surprise when I learned that, starting this year, a third Thanksgiving game will be played. This year's night game will feature the Chiefs and Broncos. Thing is, you can't watch that contest unless your cable provider allows you to subscribe to the NFL Network. I should know: I live in the metro-New York area, where the two cable companies, Time Warner and Cablevision, don't make the channel available at any price. The battle's been brewing since July, when the NFL held the Thursday night package back from network bidders, leaving big bucks on the table in order to televise the games on its own cable channel.
The gist of the fight is as follows: Cable companies argue that the NFL Network is trying to gouge them with per-subscriber rates of 70 cents each, up from the channel's current price of about a quarter. The NFL Network responds that it has the country's most-watched programming, so the cable companies should pony up. For comparison's sake, ESPN is the most expensive channel for cable companies to provide, at nearly $3 per subsriber. As the parties head back to the bargaining table for one last week of negotiations, let's handicap this matchup.
Home Field Advantage
The game's to be played on the cable companies' turf because they own the infrastructure necessary to bring programming to your home. If everyone's home had an "unobstructed view of the Southern sky," we'd all have already switched to DirecTV to buy the Sunday Ticket package. As it stands, if you want sports programming, you pay for cable (and probably digital cable so you get the HD feed). It's the only way. Advantage: Cable companies. As we know, home field in the NFL is worth 3 points.
CBS and Fox paid $8 billion to broadcast the NFL through 2011 because pro football games are the most consistent ratings-generators in the television business (crappy MNF games like Panthers-Bucs or Seahawks-Raiders notwithstanding). The NFL Network knows it has a tremendous product, so it can realistically ask for high subscriber fees. However, cable companies don't want to pay (70 cents) * (all their subscribers) for a network most people wouldn't watch and that, oh yeah, happens to have a measly eight NFL games during only two months of the year. That's a solid argument. Slight advantage: Cable companies. This moves the line another point and a half.
The cable companies have been fighting this battle for years. You might remember the fight over the Yankees' YES Network or the fight over the Mets' SportsNet New York. They've got a gameplan: They offer to put the channel on a special "sports tier" of programming for which subscribers may pay extra if they choose. This way the people who subscribe to cable for the Food Network or MTV or HBO don't have to pay extra for sports they're not going to watch. On the other side of the boardroom is Steve Bornstein. He used to run ESPN, so he knows how important sports are to people like you and me. He'll use the time-tested strategy pioneered by George Steinbrenner and the YES lawyers - people really care about watching this stuff, so you better give it to them. That tactic works if viewers can't see 90% of a team's games over six months of a baseball season, but I'm not sure it'll work for a random slate of eight NFL games. Slight advantage: Cable companies. The line moves one more point.
I'm not referring to the Gambino crime family or point-shaving, though the pun was intended. I mean the dirty, unwashed public, otherwise known as the millions of television viewers who pay the subscriber fees keeping cable companies in business. The great unknown is how much of a stink people like us will make. When Cablevision refused to carry the Mets' regional network, SNY, so many Mets fans complained that New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg inserted himself into the negotiation and the parties eventually reached a compromise. There's precedent for public opinion working hard against the cable companies, especially since each cable company is a monopoly in its viewing area. Advantage: NFL Network, but it's not the lock that you had with local baseball teams. My guess is that there's enough football on free tv and ESPN this time of year that those eight NFL games might not be missed. Move the line three points the other way.
Check my math, but totaling the above puts the cable companies as 2.5-point favorites going into this last week. I think you'll get the chance to watch the NFL Network games, but you'll probably have to pay for the special sports tier. Hell, Cablevision doesn't even offer ESPN2-HD on basic digital cable, so I don't see Cablevision handing the NFL Network a coveted basic cable spot. At least the NFL can rest assured that they can keep running their float in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade.